In the 6th grade, my school experimented with a new model of education. Walls were taken down, rooms carpeted and sofas arranged for study corners. We didn’t have lockers or desks, just trays that we carried around. The idea was to do away with classrooms, bells, and the study of independent and unrelated subjects.
Some may have dismissed the experiment as another 60’s leftover. I’m not sure if the walls were put up again, but I never heard of this integrated learning program in later years. I’m not sure if anyone really understood why the schools were without walls and why integrated learning would help us learn. Teachers most likely shrugged their shoulders and went back to their old own ways.
Forty years later, I can still remember the lessons. Even as a12 year-old, I understood that studying about Herring Gulls was a lesson on animal behavior, chimpanzees were about tool making and Eskimos were about cultural adaptation. This integrated program asked us to think about what makes us human and distinct from animals. In those days, videos were considered cutting edge and though they pale in comparison to what we have now, they were sufficient to make us young guinea pigs excited about participating in something new.
If the experiment faded at my school in the 70s, it appears that the idea hasn’t been completely forgotten. In Dhamapur Village, a district of Maharashtra, India, a school without walls has been founded by Dr. Srinath Kalbat, a scientist turned educationist. The school is operated on an, “organic learning process run by the students, for the students.” The idea is simple. Students learn by doing things in real life. “We believe that working with your hands is what teaches you best.”
Now, jump to Sweden where Vittra Telefonplan in Stockholm is a school with spaces designed for individual exploration as well as collaborative sharing. Walls are not necessary. “The differentiated spaces allow the children to learn on their own terms, creating different types of learning scenarios. In that way, the design lets the school unfold its potential.”
In the US, School Without Walls (SWW) on the George Washington University campus is a public magnet high school. It uses integrated, interactive and experiential learning with a humanities approach. Collaboration is among students, staff, families, business partners and the community with the city used as a classroom. To graduate, students must do community service, participate in an internship and complete a senior project that involves research, a presentation and the design of a tangible product. The school is ranked in the top 100 public high schools.
A school without walls that is truest to its name is of course web based. Resources online can work seamlessly into public curricula while allowing for individual paced learning, project based inquiry and collaborative creation. Learning is naturally integrated since nothing has really disintegrated.
For so long, walls are what have defined a school, but now we are ready to accept that they are not always necessary, be it physically or metaphorically. Taking down the walls in the 70s experiment were precursors to something that could not be imagined at that time. It was a very prescient step outside the box, or more accurately, outside the walls.